Records of Three Kingdoms

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The Records of Three Kingdoms (三國志, 三国志, Sānguó Zhì), is the official and authoritative historical record for the period of Three Kingdoms (189-280 C.E.), originally composed in the third century by Chen Shou ( 陳壽). The work was based on two earlier histories of the rival states, Wei (曹魏; Cáo Wèi; Ts'ao Wei) and Eastern Wu (東吳; Dōng Wú). Since there was no written record for his own state of Shu (蜀漢, Shǔ Hàn), Chen Shou composed it from memory. His book glorified the Wei kingdom as the predecessor of the Jin dynasty which he served, and gave precedence to the state of Shu over the kingdom of Wu. Though some parts contain errors and fictional exaggerations, the Records of Three Kingdoms is regarded as an invaluable historical resource. The bland collection of historical facts establishes with reasonable accuracy the sequence of historical events, but gives little information about society, political institutions, or government policies.

Records of Three Kingdoms became the basis for a later historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms ( 三國演義; Sānguó Yǎnyì), written in the fourteenth century by Luo Guanzhong, which incorporated material from oral legends, Tang poetry, and Yuan opera. It is included among the Four Great Novels of Chinese literature.


Origin and structure

Together with the Records of the Grand Historian (史記; Shǐjì), Book of Han (漢書; Hànshū), and Book of Later Han (後漢書; hòuhànshū), the book is part of the early four historiographies of the Twenty-Four Histories ( 二十四史) canon. It contains 65 volumes and about 360,000 words which are broken into three books. The Book of Wei contains 30 volumes, the Book of Shu contains 15 volumes, and the Book of Wu contains 20 volumes. Each volume is organized in the form of one or more biographies. The amount of space devoted to a biography is determined by the importance of the subject.

The original author was Chen Shou (陳壽), who was born in present day Nanchong (南充), Sichuan ( 四川), in Kingdom of Shu (蜀漢, Shǔ Hàn). After the fall of Shu in 263, he became the Gentleman of Works, and was assigned to create a history of the Three Kingdoms. After the fall of Eastern Wu (東吳; Dōng Wú) in 280, his work won the acclaim of senior minister and poet Zhang Hua (張華, 232-300, courtesy name Maoxian, 茂先). Chen Shou began his work using two earlier histories of the states of Wei (曹魏; Cáo Wèi ) and Wu. Since the state of Shu lacked a written history of its own, he wrote it from his memory. The book used the date of the fall of Han Dynasty (漢朝; Hàn Cháo; 206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) in 220 as the starting point for the state of Wei. The Book of Wei used the title “emperor” for the rulers of Wei, “lord” for the rulers of Shu, and personal names or the title “ruler of Wu” for the rulers of Wu. This was done to uphold the legitimacy of the court of Jin as inheritor of the Mandate of Heaven (天命, Tiānmìng) from Wei. The use of the term “lord” for the rulers of Shu also demonstrates Chen Shou’s loyalty to his native land.

Annotations from Pei Songzhi

In the fifth century, almost a century after the Chen Shou’s death, the work was further annotated by Pei Songzhi (裴松之), who was born in present day Yuncheng, Shanxi (運城; Yùnchéng . 山西; Shan-hsi) and served as an official of both the Eastern Jin and Liu-Song Dynasties. After leaving his native land, he became the Gentleman of Texts under the Song (宋朝, Sòng cháo, Sung) Southern Dynasties, and was given the assignment of editing Records of Three Kingdoms. He provided detailed explanations of some of the geography and other elements mentioned in the original work, and more importantly, made corrections to the work, consulting voluminous notes (Zhu) he had collected about the period. The Liu-Song Emperor criticized Pei Songzhi because the authenticity of his sources was unclear, and said his work had “occasional mistakes due to neglect.” Pei Songzhi added his own commentary on historical events and figures, and on Chen Shou's opinions. His broad research produced a relatively complete history and resolved many of the loose ends of the original.

Pei Songzhi’s completed work was accepted by the Liu-Song Emperor in 429 C.E. The revised Sanguo Zhi, integrated with the Zhu (notes), was established as the official history of the Three Kingdoms era, the Sanguozhi Zhu.

Records of Three Kingdoms as a historical record

Over the centuries, the historical facts have become so confused with the romantic traditions for the period of Three Kingdoms that the Records of Three Kingdoms is regarded as an invaluable historical resource. Its information, although full of errors, is nevertheless much more accurate than the embellishments of later writers. Many of the political, economic, and military figures from the period of Three Kingdoms are included in the work, as well as those who contributed to the fields of culture, the arts, and science. The work resembles the chronicles of early Medieval Europe. The text is bland and little more than a collection of historical facts. Here is a typical extract:

In 219, the Former Lord became King of Hanzhong, and made Guan Yu (關羽) General of the Vanguard. In the same year, Guan Yu attacked Cao Pi (曹丕) at Fan with his followers. Lord Cao (曹操) sent Yu Jin 于禁 to aid Cao Pi. In the autumn, great rains caused the Han River to flood, Yu Jin and the seven armies were lost.

From extracts such as these, historians can establish with reasonable accuracy the sequence of events and how history unfolded, but learn almost nothing about society or the elements of institutions and policies.

It is impossible to estimate precisely how much creative imagination, or fictionalizing, was used in ancient Chinese historical narratives, but it was obviously considerable. The great historian Sima Qian frequently employed this device, and it can be assumed that Chen Shou also use it in his text. It is highly unlikely that various remarks which leaders or soldiers are supposed to have made in the heat of battle could have been written down on the spot, and thus many of them may be false.

One criticism of the book was that Chen Shou, a former subject of Shu, was biased towards his own state of Shu in the work. While he was forced by political expediency to acknowledge the state of Wei as a predecessor to the Jin Dynasty (265-420), under which he served, he appeared to have contempt for the state of Wu. For example, he referred to the Shu emperors as lords, while referring to the Wu emperors by their personal name or as "rulers," and never referred to their wives as empresses, instead referring to them as “ladies.”

The volume in Records of Three Kingdoms on the Wa people, which is the first written historical record of Japan, describes the ancient country of Yamataikoku and its queen, Himiko.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

In the middle of the fourteenth century, the writer Luo Guanzhong used the material in Sanguo Zhi Zhu, together with oral legends and material from Tang Dynasty poetic works and Yuan Dynasty operas, to write the novel, Sanguozhi Tong Shu Yan Yi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms). The novel covered one hundred and thirteen years of Chinese history, from 168 C.E. to 280 C.E., and described the fall of the Han Dynasty under Emperor Ling after the Yellow Scarves rebellion; the division of the Empire into the three kingdoms of Shu, Wei, and Wu; and the reunification of the empire by the Jin Dynasty. The novel begins with the sentence, “The Empire, long divided, must unite: Long united, must divide.”

The first eighty chapters of the novel are dedicated to the reign of the last Han Emperor, Xian (189-220 C.E.), and relate how Cao Pi forced the abdication of Emperor Xian and ended the four hundred year rule of the Han dynasty. The last forty chapters describe the division of China into the Three Kingdoms or Three Dynasties (the Sanguo period) and its reunification under the house of Jin. It is possible that Luo Guanzhong also incorporated historical material from Sima Guang’s narration of the Sanguo period in Zizhi tongjian, which was also based on Records of Three Kingdoms.

During the Yuan-Ming transition period (1600–1700 C.E.), Mao Lun and his son Mao Zhong Gang edited Sanguozhi Tong Shu Yan Yi and renamed it Sanguo yanyi. This version became known as the Mao edition.

While Records of Three Kingdoms was presented as a factual historical record, Romance of the Three Kingdoms incorporated fiction, tradition, and romantic legend. Luo Guanzhong included his personal interpretations of virtue (De) and legitimacy (Zhengtong), and stories of peasant rebels and scholars as well as kings and emperors. He described life in the Imperial court, and the miserable living conditions of the suffering populace. It is acclaimed as one of the Four Great Novels of Chinese literature.


  • Bary, William Theodore De. 1960. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231022557
  • Chen, Shou, Songzhi Pei, Robert Joe Cutter, and William Gordon Crowell. 1999. Empresses and Consorts Selections from Chen Shou's Records of the Three States with Pei Songzhi's Commentary. Honolulu: University of Hawaiì Press. ISBN 9780585320076
  • Luo, Guanzhong and C.H. Brewitt-Taylor. 1990. Lo Kuan-chung's Romance of the Three Kingdoms = San guo zhi yanyi. Rutland, Vt: C.E. Tuttle Co. ISBN 0804816492
  • Macgowan, J. 1973. The Imperial History of China; Being a History of the Empire as Compiled by the Chinese Historians. London: Curzon Press. ISBN 0064944549
  • Zhang, Xiuping et al. 1993. 100 Books That Influenced China: Sanguo Zhi. Nanning, Guangxi: Renmin Press. ISBN 7-219-02339-1

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